Nestlé has announced its ambition to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and capsule arm Nespresso is just as committed to reducing its carbon footprint. Global Coffee Report explores how.
When consumers assess the impact of a coffee capsule, they look at the packaging material, then question the way it’s recycled. But Christophe Boussemart, Nespresso’s Sustainable Development Project Manager, says there’s more to the product’s carbon footprint than meets the eye.
“To judge coffee’s environmental impact properly, we need to consider the entire lifecycle from cultivation of the beans to brewing, which requires energy and water, through to disposal. In reality, scientific studies have shown that coffee farming and the processes involved with brewing have the largest environmental impact,” Boussemart tells Global Coffee Report.
However, when it comes to carbon footprint impact, Nespresso’s lifecycle assessment study confirms coffee preparation at home is where the majority comes from at 47 per cent. This stems from the energy efficiency of a Nespresso machine, how long the machine is left on, whether any coffee is wasted, or if the cup is washed in a dishwasher.
Farming practices are the next biggest producer of carbon footprint at 19 per cent, followed by production of packaging at 18 per cent, distribution at 8 per cent, end-of-life at 5 per cent, and roasting, grinding and production at 3 per cent.
“This is why we have focused on sustainability at farm level, reducing the energy consumption of our machines, on sourcing sustainable aluminium, and recycling the capsules. We introduced the automatic standby mode in our machines, so after a few minutes of non-activity, the machine switches off and saves energy,” Boussemart says.
He has been part of Nespresso for the past 18 years, 10 of which have been dedicated to the company’s sustainability strategy, including capsule recycling. A mechanical engineer by trade, Boussemart previously worked as a roller coaster designer before putting his abilities to use in the development of single-serve machines. Now, he specialises in capsule recycling, machine eco-design, and sourcing sustainable aluminium.
“When I first joined Nespresso, it was the early stages of the development of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program. The goal was to secure access to high-quality coffee and ensure our farmers could sustain that growth for the future in a social, environmental, and performance-based way,” Boussemart says.
“It was in 2001 that we started to address our carbon footprint, and in 2005 we commissioned a lifecycle study to measure our carbon footprint across the value chain of a Nespresso cup, and use it as a tool to improve our operations and our products.”
Such an improvement was made with the implementation of Nespresso’s precise portioned coffee system to reduce waste and resources by using the exact amount of coffee beans, water and energy needed to brew a single cup. It also minimises carbon footprint, unlike brewing filter coffee at home where people tend to use more resources than
“They make coffee in excess, using too many grounds and water. Hot plates run continuously to keep coffee warm, and what’s leftover often gets lost down the kitchen sink,” Boussemart says.
Compared to other coffee preparation methods, Boussemart says Nespresso capsules use less coffee for an espresso shot – about six grams – than fully automatic machines which in some instances, use about nine grams, or 50 per cent more than Nespresso capsules.
Nespresso’s ambition is to curb the carbon footprint of its coffee by 28 per cent by 2020 through improving the efficiency of its machines, powering its factories and boutiques with green energy, sourcing its coffee through Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program, and helping more consumers recycle their capsules.
“Our role is to provide our consumers solutions to dispose of their capsules,” Boussemart says. “We want our customers to know that our capsules are recyclable, and where they can take them to be recycled.”
Today, 92 per cent of Nespresso customers have access to a recycling solution. Customers can return their used capsules to Nespresso boutiques, drop them off at one of 100,000+ collection points, mail them back to Nespresso through a dedicated postal service, or have them picked up from their doorstep. The capsules are then sent to a recycling plant that separates the aluminium from the coffee grounds in order to be recycled. As for the coffee, it can form compost on farms, and be used for biogas. It may one day become a permanent virtual cycle, but for now, Boussemart says more awareness is needed on the convenience and importance of the recycling solution.
Earlier this year, Nespresso even issued an invitation to other portioned coffee manufacturers to join its recycling program, paving the way for a global recycling scheme for aluminium coffee capsules.
Nespresso aims to use 100 per cent responsibly sourced Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) certified aluminium for its capsules to reduce its carbon footprint by 2020, thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding with mining corporation Rio Tinto. Nespresso co-founded the initiative to create a sustainable aluminium standard in 2009 to reduce the impact that the world’s second-most-used base metal has on people and the planet. ASI is the first certified sustainability standard for an industrial metal.
“Nespresso continues to use aluminium because it has the dual benefit of being the best material to protect the freshness, quality, and taste of our coffees, and [is] infinitely recyclable. Aluminium does not lose its technical properties when recycled,” Boussemart says.
“Consider when you bite an apple. After a few minutes or even half an hour, it becomes brown from the oxygen in the air. That’s why aluminium is such a powerful protective agent.”
Once aluminium is melted down, it can be repurposed or recycled into Nespresso capsules or transformed into new things. This includes Nespresso’s Swiss Army knives, potato peeler, fancy pens, and coffee capsules. More recently, after two years in development, Swedish start-up Vélosophy in collaboration with Nespresso launched Re:Cycle, a urban bicycle made with 300 discarded Nespresso pods. It’s products such as these that Boussemart says showcases the possibilities for the afterlife of single-use coffee pods around the world.
The company currently invests about US$40 million per year in capsule recycling because in most countries, the public recycling infrastructure is unable to process small light items such as coffee capsules, so Nespresso set up dedicated schemes 28 years ago.
In addition to its own recycling system, the company also pays for access to public recycling infrastructure that ensures Nespresso capsules are properly sorted and recycled, such as in Germany, Sweden, and Finland. There, coffee capsules can be recycled in household recycling bins and kerbside collection schemes.
To date, Nespresso has also successfully supported upgrades to the public recycling systems in a number of cities in Austria, France, and the United States through a combination of funding and lobbying. It hopes that higher recycling targets and a growing global movement towards a circular economy will encourage more authorities to follow. The issue remains, however, that even with access to collection points, only 28 per cent of capsules are collected around the world.
In the past two years there’s been a huge shift towards consumer conscientiousness around single-use plastic bags and coffee cups, leading to bans and manufacturers changing their product offering in light of sustainable options. However, Boussemart says not all product offerings and their ability to decompose are understood.
“Compostable or biodegradable capsules, much like a banana peel or apple core, are not going to break down in your backyard unless it’s in the right environment,” he says. “This includes temperatures of 50°C to 60°C with the right value of humidity and oxygen at industrial competitive facilities.”
Today, Boussemart says the majority of organic waste recovery schemes do not accept packaging materials, which means that most consumers have no way to dispose of biodegradable packaging except in their trash bin.
According to the International Organisation for Standardisation, in order to claim packaging is compostable, it must be technically placed in an industrial composter within 12 weeks. However, industrial composters typically work on a cycle of between five and nine weeks, so even where collection schemes do accept compostable packaging, it can’t be properly processed. This results in compostable packaging typically removed from compost at the end of the cycle and incinerated.
“Composting facilities are reluctant to take capsules because they end up receiving a mix of compostable and non-compostable materials,” Boussemart says. “Second, the composting industry is reducing its processing time, and third, degrading material takes eight weeks while compostable plastic takes months to break down.”
Nespresso will continue to ensure its coffee is produced sustainably and under its Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program. It is also committed to the largest universal challenge of humanity – climate change – and how it can help reduce its footprint to ensure it’s not contributing to the temperature rise in the atmosphere.
“We’re reducing the carbon footprint of our business operations, and what we can’t reduce, we compensate by planting trees on the farms where our coffee is grown helping to provide a nature-based solution for adapting to climate change,” Boussemart says. “So far, we have planted 3.5 million trees on coffee farms in Colombia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, with an ambition to plant five million by 2020. I’m confident we can make a difference now, and in years to come.”